Dancing in the Dark
From the paso doble to the Peabody, ballroom dancing is alive and well in the Hudson Valley, as our footloose writer discovered
By Graham Blackburn
I raised my hand tentatively to shoulder height, and with a smile she walked right into my arms. Taking my upheld hand in her own and resting her other hand on my shoulder, she told me to follow. She swayed backwards and, to my surprise, my body followed. At first I was fearful that I was going to tread on her toes, but somehow they were out of the way by the time my foot reached the floor.
Other dancers on the crowded floor passed us by, but she steered me clear and we moved around the room in time to the music. This was amazing: here I was with a strange woman in a position that would have gotten me arrested if IÂ¡Â¯d attempted it on the street, moving effortlessly in time (more or less) to music that crowded out all the worrying aggravations that normally occupy me. It was like lying on the beach, abandoning myself to pleasant daydreams. It was legal intoxication with no attendant hangover.
My initial reaction on first discovering the Hudson ValleyÂ¡Â¯s vibrant ballroom-dancing scene was irritation Â¡Âª how had I missed so much fun for so long? I had heard rumors of it from time to time, but had dismissed them as being overblown. Ballroom dancing, as far as I knew, was something that had faded away years ago; any remaining trace of it was a holdover practiced by a few aging swing-era survivors.
But now, newly equipped with suede-soled dancing shoes, IÂ¡Â¯m here to tell you how wrong I was. Ballroom dancing Â¡Âª in an astonishing variety of styles and at innumerable venues Â¡Âª is alive and well up and down the Hudson Valley.
My enlightenment began when a friend invited me to a Â¡Â°studio social.Â¡Â± I thought at best it would be boring and at worst embarrassing, but friendship has its responsibilities, and I reluctantly accepted. IÂ¡Â¯d learned to waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep when I was young, but what little dancing IÂ¡Â¯d done for the past 30 years took place in jazz or rock clubs, and for that you didnÂ¡Â¯t have to study or take classes; you just got up and did it.
Imagine my surprise when, arriving at a small but crowded dance studio in Kingston, I was handed over to my friendÂ¡Â¯s very attractive partner and shown the basic Â¡Â°box stepÂ¡Â± for the rhumba. It wasnÂ¡Â¯t Â¡Âª at least initially Â¡Âª very difficult, and the experience of moving around together in time to the music was so seductive and engrossing that by the end of the evening I was hooked, ready to sign up for lessons and eager to explore more locations.
In the months that followed, I visited clubs and studios from Westchester to Albany and beyond, sampling what seemed to be a never-ending variety of dance forms from salsa to swing. I was introduced to smooth dancing, both American-style and International Â¡Âª foxtrots, quicksteps, waltzes of various stripes; Latin dances Â¡Âª merengue, mambo, salsa rueda, samba, cha-cha, rhumba, bolero, tango, and even paso doble; and a whole slew of Â¡Â°swingÂ¡Â± dances Â¡Âª East Coast, West Coast, hustle, Lindy hop, and some IÂ¡Â¯d never heard of, like the Peabody, a dance from the ragtime era with long, gliding steps. (Myth has it that the Captain Peabody was quite obese and had to dance to the side of his partner.)
Around the fringes of traditional ballroom dancing I also encountered polkas, Texas two-steps, contra-dancing, and line-dancing. I learned about competition dancing; bronze-, silver-, and gold-level Â¡Â°medal dancingÂ¡Â±; and plain old social dancing, the kind you see in the nightclub scenes of Â¡Â¯40s-vintage movies. I watched internationally famous dancers give performances at various events. I even learned about the fast-growing world of the Argentine tango Â¡Âª a sophisticated dance quite different from ballroom tango that often becomes an exclusive obsession for those who discover it (and which has been touted as a really good excuse for women to buy sexy dresses). Argentine tango requires study, attracts an upscale and often younger crowd, and, I predict, will be the next big thing in the dance world.
One thing these various dance communities Â¡Âª from country swing to elegant ballroom and sophisticated tango Â¡Âª have in common is that theyÂ¡Â¯re friendly, welcoming, and, most surprisingly, accepting of a wide range of ages and social groups, the common denominator being the enjoyment of dancing. Protocol allows both men and women to ask each other to dance, so singles can feel comfortable, and those who go as couples or in groups usually dance with different partners throughout an event.
Perhaps one small holdover from an earlier time is that although most dances are very relaxed and usually billed as Â¡Â°dress casual,Â¡Â± nobody shows up in jeans, and about half the women wear dresses. The subdued air of glamour brings out the dapper Fred and the sleek Ginger lying dormant in everyone.
Dancing has much to offer: it is, of course, healthy Â¡Âª great aerobic exercise, good for the posture, and an excellent serotonin booster guaranteed to improve your outlook on life. For many people, it can easily turn into an art form, expressing life in the most graceful way. Others enjoy the excitement of competition, all the way from local level to Olympic involvement Â¡Âª at which point it becomes a dynamic and extremely artistic form of gymnastics, requiring years of dedicated training that often begins in childhood.
Competition dance is amazing and fun to watch, but for most people it is the social interaction that is the most rewarding aspect of ballroom dancing. Smoky bars or long evenings of couch potato-ing may have their appeal, but youÂ¡Â¯re less likely to run the risk of a DWI ticket or become overweight once you start dancing.
There is an additional appeal for men of a certain age, who have lived through the consciousness-raising of the sexual revolution. In todayÂ¡Â¯s enlightened and equal-opportunity world, ballroom dancing remains one of the last vestiges of a now politically incorrect male dominance. While good ballroom dancing is ultimately a mutually dependent partnership, it is the man who leads and the woman who follows. This can be an exhilarating experience, if fraught with the added responsibility of having to work that much harder, not only to learn the steps but also to lead your partner safely and interestingly around the floor.
Make no mistake, ballroom dancing requires dedication and practice. But it has a unique appeal, no matter what your taste, whether itÂ¡Â¯s simply gaining sufficient proficiency to dance at a wedding or participate in an informal social, or becoming involved with one particular variety of dance. And itÂ¡Â¯s remarkably easy to start; all you have to be able to do is stand up and walk. Â¡Ã¶
Graham Blackburn is the owner of Blackburn Books in Bearsville, Ulster County. He has just published his 17th book, Traditional Woodworking Techniques, available at www.blackburnbooks.com.